Catherine Connor, Senior Lecturer PGCE Drama. I have been leading the PGCE Drama course for five years and before that, teaching secondary drama (and some English) for twenty years in schools and colleges in inner-London.
‘God Bless You, Miss’
It’s Saturday afternoon, I am shopping in my local shopping centre, to feed my addiction.
I am in my own world, lost in a dream of capitalist instant gratification, with a couple of bags in my hand, when I am swept off my feet, literally, by a young man I don’t recognise saying loudly for all to hear, and in front of his friends, ‘God bless you, miss,’ . By the time I have recovered my balance and assured passers-by that I am ok, I stand facing a man in his mid-twenties who is grinning widely and repeating the phrase ‘do you remember me, miss?’ I search the face in front of me, looking for a 15-year-old boy, and say ‘yes, Curtis, I remember you, well now!’ What follows is a blurting out of everything he is doing now in his life followed by the fact that he couldn’t have done it without my help and that it is so lovely to see me again and he repeats ‘God bless you, miss’. His friends are as astounded as I am and express surprise that I remember his name. But his is a name I will never forget. Looking at him in front of me now, a grown man, I marvel at the fact that he is looking so radiant and happy, so composed. It is not the way I remember him, and I am proud to be part of his success.
So, let’s rewind ten years. My shopping addiction was probably fuelled by what I was dealing with at this time, just a bud beginning to sprout. It was a time of such stress, but also such overwhelming joy, I was fighting to keep my head above water and to keep kids in school. My personal ethos is that if you take a child into the school in Yr7, you have got to see them through to the end. It’s what I call ‘seeing them grow’. Whatever the age, getting all the way through school is very difficult for some students who are experiencing challenging personal issues. I believe that we should be supporting students to get all the way through, but I also realise that there is a reluctance to do it. I’m not sure there was back then either, but at that time the obsession with results was only just beginning.
When I met Curtis, he was fighting his way through a group of Yr8 boys in the drama corridor. He was one against six or more, in a highly emotional state, kicking out at whoever he could reach. After managing to break it up, taking their names and sending the others off to their lesson, I pulled Curtis aside to speak to him. He was very distressed repeating ‘oh, now I’m gonna get kicked out for fighting’ and after a long time calming him down and following him up and down the corridor, he told me that his dad was in prison, he was having to be the ‘man’ at home and was having to fight for his dad’s honour at school almost every day. He had also been told that if he fought again he was going to be permanently excluded. He was 12. Add to that the fact that Curtis was not the most academic child I had ever met, (although I wouldn’t say he lacked intelligence) and we had a recipe for exclusion.
I walked him to his lesson, apologising to his teacher for keeping him, and never mentioned the fight I had witnessed to anyone. I am ashamed to say, I did this often. As well as this, I asked him to come and see me whenever he felt angry and I would give him a safe place to sit on his own and calm down. I could tell he was grateful.
Fast forward a couple of years and Curtis chose drama as an option. He was still in school and managing his anger much better than he had been, but he was not on the straight and narrow yet. He was still on the point of exclusion and all staff were supposed to write down any incident relating to him, to add to his file. His father was still in prison and Curtis had three younger siblings to attend to. He did pretty well in his drama lessons, he had a certain flair and an emotional intelligence to bring to his roles that others did not have, he also would do anything for me, especially when he was feeling more on top. When I think back on it now, many of the students I taught in Yr 10 and 11 Drama were on the brink of exclusion, they felt safe and happy and the course at the time was 80% practical (which is not the case now). Curtis also took a role in making sure that everyone else was behaving well and taking Drama seriously, he had learned how to manage and control other kids by now and sometimes this had to be quashed. He had a decency that he could not show, because he could not go back to the troubles of Yr8 and this was a problem for him. He felt the need to fiercely defend himself, not in the Drama room, but in other places around the school, and this was not going to end well.
As time went by Curtis was more often outside the classroom than inside, he was causing disruption all around the school and at the beginning of Yr 11 he was permanently excluded. He just could not quite hold it together. It was better when he was in Yr 8 and 9 because he would come to me to calm down, but as he got older, his male pride would not allow it and he managed it with his fists or his words and that got him into trouble. Even so, I fought for him. I asked if he could come in for his Drama lessons on the basis that his GCSE group needed him and eventually it was allowed, and I had to meet him at the school gate, accompany him to my lessons and escort him off the premises afterwards. I know that he was eternally grateful, but when I used to meet him at the gate (and he was always there in full school uniform) he looked defeated and it broke my heart.
The thing is, there are many kids like Curtis out there, probably more now with the rates of child poverty at an all time high, and when we read about these figures and look at the pictures we are shown, they are all of young children in deprived areas to pull at our heart strings; the stabbings and killings on the streets are the product of youth poverty. Nobody makes that clear in the media and all the decent people that read these articles start to judge our young people. Most of the victims of street violence and the perpetrators have been excluded from school. Why have they been excluded from school? Because they have too much to deal with for their age and because the schools are fixated on academic results - not students reaching their full potential, regardless of their grades.
I have had a ‘God bless you, miss’ moment two or three times in my life. When they happen, and there are never any signs that they are coming, they make me realise that I was right to do what I did for those kids, although it was not much and it was always a fight. My life has been enriched for knowing them, far more than I can put into words, and whether God blesses me or not, I know they remember me fondly and that is all that matters. When they’ve risen above it like Curtis did it is a real triumph, but for all the others out there that are still struggling, what we need is some patience and understanding.
Exclusion should always be an absolute last resort. These are our kids – our future. Let’s look after them!